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Mission Impossible

1.

Late in the afternoon of Sunday, October 3, 1993, nearly one hundred elite American soldiers slid down on ropes from Black Hawk helicopters into a part of Mogadishu controlled by the warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. They were supposed to abduct two of Aidid’s top lieutenants and return to base overland. The mission was intended to take one hour. Instead, the task force was pinned down and fought for their lives throughout the night. Two of the Black Hawks were shot down in Aidid’s territory and two, badly damaged, had to crash-land at the base. When the force was finally extricated early the next morning by a multinational UN group led by Malaysians and Pakistanis, eighteen of its members were dead and seventy-five wounded. For every American killed or wounded there were at least a dozen Somali casualties; conservative estimates reckoned there were five hundred Somali dead and perhaps one thousand wounded. The figures were probably higher. It was the biggest firefight involving American soldiers since the war in Vietnam.

In Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden has reconstructed this extremely violent episode with amazing vividness and detail. The reader can visualize the action, smell the dust and sweat and the reek of explosives, and even enter into the exultation, fear, rage, pain, confusion, and exhaustion of the combatants. Bowden never loses sight of the human qualities and reactions that are, in the end, decisive in battle. Because he was able to interview survivors on both sides relatively soon after the action, Bowden’s story has a vitality and freshness usually lacking in accounts of combat. He has written an extraordinary book. It is also a shocking one.

How could the efforts of the United States to help the long-suffering people of Somalia possibly end in this way? In the autumn of 1992, President George Bush’s last grand international gesture as president had been Operation Restore Hope, a task force headed by a large contingent of US Marines and soldiers. Its mission was to provide a safe and secure environment for the distribution of relief supplies to the starving Somali people after a catastrophic famine. Relief supplies had been regularly held up or stolen by members of the various factions fighting for power in Somalia, and the various organizations engaged in humanitarian aid needed protection. The strictly humanitarian mission, under US command, would last just a few months. It had no political objectives. The task force arrived in Somalia in December 1992.1

From the start there was a misunderstanding, which soon developed into a disagreement, between the United States and the UN secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, about the tasks and objectives of the mission. The secretary-general was convinced that disarming the Somali factions and setting up a civil administration and police force were essential to establishing the “secure environment” that was the principal aim of the mission. The Bush administration was unwilling to consider disarming the factions and was skeptical of anything that hinted at “nation-building.”

In his campaign for the White House Bill Clinton had tried to distance himself from what he termed Bush’s inaction in places like Bosnia, and he had come out strongly for a UN rapid reaction force as a part of a more assertive multilateral style in US foreign policy. When, in the spring of 1993, the time came to set out the procedures by which UN forces would take over peacekeeping responsibility from the United States in Somalia, the Americans and the UN agreed that a sizable American presence would still be required to carry out the task that the Security Council had given the mission. This now included “the rehabilitation of the political institutions and economy of Somalia,” i.e., “nation-building.” “By adopting this resolution,” Ambassador Madeleine Albright told the Security Council,

we will embark on an unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country as a proud, functioning and viable member of the community of nations. This is an historic undertaking. We are excited to join it and we will vigorously support it.2

About 4,000, mostly logistical, US troops were to remain in Somalia. There was also a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) of 1,300 Marines under US command. A retired American admiral, Jonathan Howe, was appointed as the secretary-general’s representative and head of the UN mission.

The change in the nature of the Somalia mission was bound to create a more abrasive relationship with the various Somali factions, and especially with General Mohammed Farrah Aidid, the ambitious leader of the Somalia National Alliance. Aidid had been the rival of the former president Siad Barre, and evidently saw himself as the rightful future president of the country. The various factions had their own militias, primitively armed but skillful fighters. Many of them were to be seen on the streets of Mogadishu in the so-called “technicals”—trucks with machine guns mounted on them. The factions also commanded the clan loyalty of many others who, though less well trained, were potential fighters when the clan was threatened.

The Clinton policy of “assertive multilateralism” was also a factor in this new relationship, especially when violence in Mogadishu increased and began to involve UN soldiers. On June 6, twenty-four Pakistani soldiers, part of a group believed by Aidid to be moving to close down his radio station, were killed in an ambush. The Security Council, in a tensely emotional session, quickly passed a resolution calling for the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for the killings.

Both the rhetoric and the action on this occasion were a radical departure from the cautious and carefully calibrated approach to peacekeeping crises in the past, when it had been considered both improper and unwise to risk intense popular hostility by attacking local leaders, however obnoxious. Traditional peacekeeping forces were not supposed to have enemies. There was no such caution on this occasion, and Aidid was officially proclaimed the enemy.

In Mogadishu efforts to carry out the Security Council resolution inevitably led to more frequent confrontations with Aidid’s militias, as the UN soldiers tried, without suc-cess, to catch him. There was heavy pressure on the UN representative, Admiral Howe, both from the US and from Boutros-Ghali, whose patronizing attitude to Somalis and longstanding hostility to Aidid and the Habr Gidr clan, of which Aidid was chief, had shocked some of his staff. Howe put a price of $25,000 on Aidid’s head, a sum which the Habr Gidr clan members found insultingly small. He refused to talk to Aidid or his representatives.

Howe eventually prevailed on a reluctant Pentagon to send out a special force of US Rangers and Delta Force personnel to arrest Aidid. Like the QRF, this group was not under UN command. It took orders from the US Central Command in Tampa, Florida. The UN headquarters in Mogadishu had no contact with the Ranger force and no authority over them. Before taking off on an operation, the Rangers were supposed to notify the Ameri-can deputy UN commander, General Thomas Montgomery, in situations where they might interfere with UN peacekeeping activities.

Their first six operations had been more or less uneventful, although on one occasion they had arrested a group of UN workers by mistake. On another, they had, also by mistake, stormed the house of Somali general Ahmen Jialo, whom the UN was grooming to lead the new Somali police force. They had taken no casualties nor had they been given any reason to doubt their complete military superiority. For the most part they attacked targets on the basis of information from local agents.

It was on a tip of this kind that the Ranger task force took off at very short notice on the afternoon of October 3. Ironically, Admiral Howe was returning to Mogadishu at exactly the same time from a visit to Ethiopia and Eritrea to enlist the support of those governments for a peaceful diplomatic approach to Aidid. He took some time to get back to his headquarters, and even longer to discover what exactly was going on.

2.

In 1993 Western countries were still basking in the afterglow of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq two years before. America’s soldiers, sailors, and airmen, with their miraculous technology, had acquired a magisterial aura as international policemen. This was especially true of US special forces. Mark Bowden refers to their view of themselves as “the cocked fist of America’s military might…. They were predators, heavy metal avengers, unstoppable, invincible,…shooting anyone foolish enough to fight back.” The average age in the Rangers was nineteen, and they tended to be regarded as trigger-happy teenagers by their far more experienced and mature Delta Force colleagues. They were predominantly white. They were engaged on “what seemed like a simple assignment, capture the tinhorn Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid.” They were equipped with the most advanced combat weapons, military technology, and communications. Their helicopters and spy planes photographed Mogadishu night and day.

As Mark Bowden describes them, the young men of the Ranger task force hated Mogadishu, with its unruly and unpredictable people, its grinding poverty, its endless slums, dust, and garbage. They had a sovereign contempt for the Somalis, whom they called “skinnies” or “sammies.” They apparently had little idea of Somali courage or fighting tradition. Somali fighters were famous for braving enemy fire and for almost suicidal frontal assaults. They were ready to die. One hundred years before, after the Mahdi’s forces had annihilated General Charles Gordon and his small force at Khartoum, and the British Sudan Expeditionary force had been sent to redeem the situation, Rudyard Kipling had written, “So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Sowdan;/You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man.” Some of the instructors of the Somali militias were Sudanese.

Most Somalis had at first welcomed the Americans and Operation Restore Hope, particularly for their work in protecting food supplies and their distribution. When the nature of the mission changed to “restoration of an entire country,” however, they became puzzled and anxious. A very bloody July raid with TOW missiles fired from QRF helicopters on a house in which a meeting of Aidid’s aides was taking place had widened support for Aidid in Mogadishu. The incessant helicopter flights over the city, sometimes so low that the powerful rotors created dust storms and blew the tin roofs off houses, infuriated and humiliated the inhabitants. When they complained to the UN they were told that nothing could be done because the Rangers were not under UN command. Some of the armed groups had come to the conclusion that the best way to hurt the Americans would be to shoot down a helicopter, the symbol of American power and Somali helplessness; so they modified their primitive rocket-propelled grenade launchers—RPGs—to enable them to fire at aircraft.

In the first hour of the October 3 raid, the Somalis shot down two helicopters. Thus, although the Delta men had already secured their captives and the force was ready to move out, the entire group was directed to go to the crash sites to protect and recover the helicopter crews.3 The opposition to them soon turned “into something akin to a popular uprising. It seemed like everybody in the city wanted suddenly to help kill Americans.” Deadly ambushes and roadblocks sprang up throughout the city, and the Ranger force was trapped until they were extricated early the next morning by UN forces.

Not only were eighteen Rangers killed but several of their corpses were later dragged through the streets. The technically advanced communications and command and control systems of the Americans, as well as their powerful weapons and close helicopter support, counted for little in such a situation. As Bowden makes clear, the young soldiers caught in this lethal nightmare felt simply that “this wasn’t supposed to happen.” It was a major disaster and a major revelation of the limits of high-tech military power.

3.

Aidid’s stunning victory had far-reaching consequences.4 Robert Oakley, who had been President Bush’s representative in Mogadishu, had dealt directly with Aidid, and did not believe that attempts to arrest him would do anything but harm. He was suddenly called in by the Clinton administration, which had previously ignored him. Oakley went to Mogadishu to inform the Somalis, and especially Aidid, of a radical change in US policy—the US now favored peaceful negotiation and an early pullout—and to secure the release of a captured helicopter pilot.5

Within a few weeks of the raid Aidid was on his way, with a US Marine escort, to peace negotiations in Addis Ababa. In March 1994 the US troops were pulled out of Somalia, and the rest of the UN operation soon followed, thus aborting the UN effort to stabilize and rebuild the country. Aidid died in 1996, and his clan still pursues its bloody rivalry with other clans in the ruins of Mogadishu. As Bowden puts it, “The larger world has forgotten Somalia. The great ship of international goodwill has sailed.”

In Washington the debacle of America’s elite soldiers and the television pictures of American corpses being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by enraged but jubilant Somalis produced a swift and violent reaction. Congress had for some time been critical of the uncertain purpose and cost of the Somalia mission and the involvement of American forces. Indeed, the operation had never been given an overall objective that had any chance of lasting success in the surreal world of Somalia.

Now the floodgates of congressional anger opened and swept away for good the Clintonian concept of “assertive multilateralism.” The Somalia mission was the first time United States forces had participated on the ground in a UN peacekeeping operation. (There was also a small US contingent in the UN deterrent force in Macedonia.) It seems unlikely that this experience will be repeated. That twenty-two American soldiers had been killed—four died earlier in a mine accident—and that the Rangers had been humiliated by the people of a very poor third-world country produced, in Washington, a violent, if irrational, antipathy to UN operations in general and to the organization itself.

The Clinton administration offered little resistance to this line of thinking. After all, a scapegoat is always useful in times of crisis. As Bowden puts it,

There was some cynical posturing in the White House and Congress …about never again placing US troops under UN command, when everyone involved understood perfectly well that Task Force Ranger and even the QRF were under direct US command at all times.

(Such posturing cropped up again in the 1996 presidential election campaign of Robert Dole.) In the first carefully researched account of the raid, on October 25, Michael R. Gordon and Thomas L. Friedman in The New York Times wrote, “Some lawmakers have argued that the failed raid is proof that United States troops should not be under United Nations command…. But in fact, it was an entirely American operation, directed through an American military channel.”6

Unfortunately, it is the first impression, however false, that counts, and the Ranger disaster spelled the end not only of “assertive multilateralism” but also of US support for any new UN peacekeeping operations, even if US forces were not participating.

The U-turn in American policy on UN peacekeeping was formalized in the final version of Presidential Decision Directive 25 (PDD 25), which was issued after much revision in May 1994. This directive was originally intended to provide the definitive and strongly affirmative basis for US participation in “assertive multilateralism.” The final version posed so many questions and prior conditions as to make virtually impossible not only US participation in, but also US approval of, future UN peacekeeping operations. The directive reverted to the highly restrictive criteria established by Caspar Weinberger and Colin Powell, which provided for US participation in international operations only when the US was in control, the public was overwhelmingly in favor, and victory was clearly assured.

American military bravado and overconfidence abroad, fear of the political consequences of risk-taking and of casualties at home, and the anti-international mood of the Congress had all combined to bring about a complete reversal of the original policy of the Clinton administration. The same factors also effectively aborted the promising growth of the UN’s capacity for crisis management in the post-cold war world.

The most striking immediate practical result of this development was the refusal of the UN Security Council, under US leadership, to do anything at all, until it was much too late, about the genocide in Rwanda in the following spring. The same negative policy has continued, with the result that since 1993 it has proved virtually impossible to launch, let alone prepare for, new emergency peacekeeping operations of the kind that had served the world well as a means of containing conflict for the previous forty years. All talk of a UN rapid reaction force has ceased, although on several recent occasions, including the crises in Kosovo and East Timor, such a force might have been extremely useful. On the contrary, fifteen days’ notice to the Congress is now required for US approval of any new UN peacekeeping operation—a formidable obstacle to rapid and timely UN action.

Instead, the new order of the day calls for “coalitions of the willing,” authorized if possible by the Security Council but otherwise not under UN command and control. NATO and an ad hoc coalition were used in Kosovo, and an Australian-led force more recently in East Timor. (In East Timor Kofi Annan has proposed that a regular UN peacekeeping force should eventually take over.) It remains to be seen whether such predominantly regional actions will be able to surmount the regional political rivalries and other problems that a broadly based, UN-controlled force was able to avoid in the past.7 It is not clear whether regional powers will be willing to bear the considerable costs involved. Nor is it clear that regional powers, even if a more alert Security Council is willing to legitimize earlier preventive action, will be able to carry out the kind of rapid reaction that might have saved the people of East Timor from the appalling tribulations that befell them after their overwhelming and courageous vote for independence.

4.

The Ranger raid on Mogadishu was, in Bowden’s words, “a lesson in the limits of what force can accomplish.” The Somalia mission was supposedly a peacekeeping operation, but it strayed very far from the principle which had been the basis of the UN’s previous peacekeeping operations, that force is to be used only in self-defense. This principle was often derided by critics as pusillanimous and feeble; but in fact it recognized the essential limitations of such operations. The non-use of force was a vital condition for the countries making peacekeeping troops available to the UN. In addition, one of the main purposes of peacekeeping operations is to help the people of the countries in which they are deployed. No matter how tiresome or difficult they may be, it is their country, with its own history and traditions, and these have to be respected if their cooperation is to be secured. Thus peacekeeping forces were not supposed to have enemies—only clients who were often difficult and sometimes dangerous.

The real strength of a traditional UN peacekeeping force lay not in its capacity to use force, but precisely in its not using force and thereby remaining above the conflict. The traditional UN idea, based on considerable practical experience, was that, in most circumstances, the moment a peacekeeping force starts killing people it becomes a part of the conflict it is supposed to be controlling, and therefore becomes part of the problem. The force loses the essential quality that distinguishes it from the people it is dealing with and sets it above them. There is also a highly practical consideration. A peacekeeping force is almost invariably vastly outnumbered by the locals. It must therefore maintain, as far as possible, popular support and avoid situations in which it may suddenly be engulfed in a hostile sea of enraged inhabitants.

A traditional peacekeeping operation was much more a policing and assistance mission than a military action. The regular participants in UN operations became accustomed to this sort of duty, even though it often required great patience and restraint in the face of insult and sometimes injury. The Congo, southern Lebanon, Cyprus, Cambodia, Angola, and other places did not provide easy conditions for peacekeepers.

Peacekeeping troops tended to come, with the exception of Canada, one of the original stalwarts of UN operations, from countries which had not recently been involved in the exclusive pursuit of military victory (e.g., the Nordic countries), or from former colonial powers like France, Britain, or the Netherlands, and from countries like India, Pakistan, or Ghana, whose armies were accustomed to the limited and not always glorious duty of providing aid to the civil power when it was facing difficulties. Such restraints may well have seemed strange and been hard to accept for United States soldiers, imbued with the idea of victory, in their first UN peacekeeping operation. Even in Somalia, in spite of particularly turbulent local conditions, peace rather than victory was the goal.

Throughout military history a divided command has usually been a recipe for disaster. The Somalia mission was a disastrous example of divided command. In previous UN peacekeeping missions, the force commander had always been appointed by the secretary-general with the approval of the Security Council. Great pains were taken to ensure that the various national contingents took orders on operational matters only from the UN force commander, who in turn worked under the overall guidance of the secretary-general. The secretary-general reported regularly to the Security Council on the progress or otherwise of the mission. During the cold war, any other system would certainly have been challenged by one or another of the Council’s permanent members. In any case, the UN’s overall responsibility, symbolized by the UN flag and the blue helmet, protected the contributing countries and their soldiers from blame and retaliation arising from actions of the Security Council or of the UN forces in the field.

In Somalia the situation was very different. The United States had originated the operation and continued to have an overwhelming influence in leading it. Even when the mission was handed over to the UN, this situation persisted. Admiral Jonathan Howe, the secretary-general’s representative, was certainly far more accustomed to reporting to Washington than to the secretary-general of the UN. That Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was often at loggerheads with Washington certainly did not help. Although there was a UN force commander, General Cevik Bir of Turkey, there was no doubt that the person who ran the force was General Thomas Montgomery, his American deputy. Montgomery was also the commander of most of the remaining US troops, but he did not command or control the Delta/Ranger force.

With such a setup it was not surprising that other national contingents were also more inclined to look to their own capitals than to the UN for guidance and instructions. They sometimes acted on their own assessment of the situation rather than on instructions from the mission headquarters, often with disastrous results. The Italians, the former colonial power in Somalia, were notably skeptical of orders from the UN command, preferring to look to Rome for direction.

Task Force Ranger paid a heavy price for the divided command in Somalia. No one in the UN headquarters knew exactly what the Rangers were doing, where they were doing it, or whether they might need help. The only precaution taken by the UN deputy commander was an order to the US Tenth Mountain Division—which was now serving as the Quick Reaction Force—to keep one company on alert. The request from the Ranger commander to extricate his force came in the middle of the night, and the multinational group that was improvised to go to their rescue had no previous experience of such a mission. There was even a language problem in communicating with the Malaysian drivers of the armored personnel carriers that led the rescue. It was something of a miracle that the rescue went off as well as it did.

5.

To some the sacrifice of the Rangers will remain, in Bowden’s words, “an enduring symbol of Third World ingratitude and intractability, of the futility of trying to resolve local animosities with international muscle.” For others it will be remembered as an example of the ignorance, impatience, and arrogance of a Western world entranced by its military, economic, and technological superiority. Undoubtedly the Ranger task force—and the Somalis—paid a very high price for the arrest of two obscure clan functionaries. The failure of their mission also marked the end of the brief period of post-cold war enthusiasm for United Nations efforts to salvage nations or peoples in desperate straits.

Nearly six years later, there are signs that a more thoughtful and realistic approach to that daunting task may be possible. Obviously the old technique of peacekeeping among sovereign states is not applicable to the sort of situations that now preoccupy the UN, although the broad principles on which it was based are still valid. Nor is the experiment in forceful humanitarian intervention by ground troops that came to an end with the Ranger raid in Mogadishu likely to be repeated.

Now, governments are trying to respond in various other ways, both inside and outside the UN, to the plight of people in the throes of disaster, both natural and man-made, as well as to gross violations of human rights. The responses include “coalitions of the willing,” the cooperation of intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations in extensive relief operations, use of international war crimes tribunals, the possibility of an international criminal court, and temporary UN administration of leaderless countries.

The current discussion of the problem reflects a positive mood at the UN and a willingness to try new approaches. When Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed setting up a UN administration in East Timor for the next two or three years, his plan, as The New York Times wrote, “reflected a growing readiness by the United Nations to take active control of foundering countries or regions.” A Times editorial found Annan’s plan “a timely and constructive proposal that deserves Washington’s encouragement.”8 Whether this encouragement, and the necessary financial support, will be forthcoming is impossible to say. Certainly, as the editorial points out, “UN inaction could be even more expensive.”

The mission in Somalia was an early venture on this long and hazardous road. It was conducted in good faith and went badly wrong. If subsequent efforts do better, they will owe at least a part of their success to the lessons learned at such cost in Somalia six years ago.

  1. 1

    Michael G. MacKinnon’s forthcoming book, A Fairweather Friend?: US Peacekeeping Policy Under Clinton, shortly to be published by Frank Cass, provides a useful account of the American background of the Somalia mission.

  2. 2

    UN Security Council records, S/PV. 3188, March 26, 1993.

  3. 3

    It was a central part of the Ranger creed not to abandon dead or wounded on the battlefield. In Mogadishu this meant the force staying on when they could have got out. A Ranger sergeant explained, “You can’t know until you’ve been in a situation like that how important it is to know that your buddies will not leave you behind, even if you’re dead. It’s one of those things that enables you to fight.” Ranger Sergeant Shawn Nelson, quoted in Mark Bowden, “The Day of the Rangers,” VFW, October 1998.

  4. 4

    The Habr Gidr clan now celebrates October 3 as a national holiday, “if,” as Bowden remarks, “such a thing is possible where there is no nation.”

  5. 5

    By far the most thoughtful and well-informed study of Operation Restore Hope and its aftermath is John L. Hirsch and Robert Oakley’s Somalia and Operation Restore Hope: Reflections on Peacemaking and Peacekeeping (United States Institute of Peace Press, 1995).

  6. 6

    Details of US Raid in Somalia: Success So Near, a Loss So Deep,” The New York Times, October 25, 1993.

  7. 7

    A New York Times editorial, “UN Governance in East Timor,” of October 7, 1999, comments, “Australia did much to restore security in East Timor. But the forceful tactics of its commanders have stirred resentment in Asia, and Australia now wants a lower profile.”

  8. 8

    Barbara Crossette, “Annan Says UN Must Take Over East Timor Rule,” The New York Times, October 6, 1999; “UN Governance in East Timor.”

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